Clean coal: the future of energy?

With world energy consumption set to rise significantly - and the holy grail of nuclear fusion yet to be realised - coal is looking like the best solution to our energy needs. It's not without controversy though...

Earlier this week, Greenpeace activists tried to stop operations at the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in England. They were protesting over plans to build another coal-burning plant at the site. But they are probably fighting a losing battle when you consider practicality and reality instead of idealism.

World energy consumption is not falling it is going to rise significantly. Total world consumption of marketed energy is projected to increase by 57% from 2004 to 2030, according to the US Energy Information Administration. This rise will be boosted by the soaring global population. The total number of people in the world is expected to increase by 2.6 billion over the next 45 years, from 6.5 billion today to 9.1 billion in 2050. That's a staggering increase of 40%.

Almost all this growth will take place in the less-developed regions of the world, where today's 5.3 billion population is expected to swell to 7.8 billion in 2050. By contrast, the population of the more developed regions will remain mostly unchanged, at 1.2 billion. The population in places such as Germany, Japan and Italy is expected to fall.

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I have spoken about my view that the future is nuclear, and by nuclear I mean the fission variety. However, over the longer term, work is continuing to try to build a fusion reactor, which really would be the ultimate in power generation. If we conquer fusion power the power that is unleashed in all the stars in the universe clean, limitless energy could actually be possible.

In a rare spirit of co-operation, the world is pooling its resources to try and see if a fusion reactor will work. A research centre is being developed in the South of France to do this in Cadarache near Marseilles to be exact. The partners in the project are the European Union, Japan, China, India, South Korea, Russia and the US. I wish all those physicists with large brains good luck.

But all of this is a long way off; a very long way off

Until these futuristic technologies come on stream, fossil fuels look set to take up most of the slack. Renewable energy will provide some support, but I really cannot see a world without fossil fuels as the main source of power generation coming any time soon. This is particularly true in the emerging economies of Asia.

A way to curb controversy?

Coal consumption always rises when the oil price increases as utility companies try to remain competitive. Coal is dirty, but cheap. It is not ideal, but the world is never an ideal place. As the world population rises, energy consumption will rise, oil prices will rise and coal use will increase. I believe that the fundamentals of this argument are relatively solid.

Oil prices are going to rise. Indeed, in a TV interview on al-Jazeera last night Qatari energy minister Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah said he thought crude oil prices should realistically be in excess of $100 already. This price was justified by rising inflation, a fall in purchasing power and the weakness of the dollar, he argued.

All this means great opportunities for coal companies over the next few years and the country that is set to benefit significantly from this trend is Australia, which is already the world's largest exporter of coal.

The Energy Information Administration has down some number crunching on the issue. In its 2007 International Energy Outlook, the US government body predicted that total coal consumption would rise 74% between 2004-2030, with the international coal trade rising 44% between 2005 and 2030. In its base case, the organisations' analysts predicted that coal's share of world energy consumption would increase to 28% in 2030, from 26% now.

As Monday's direct action protest showed, coal is controversial. Clean coal technology is being developed, but it is not at the stage yet where it can be widely deployed.

However, Royal Dutch Shell believes that it has a solution and it was banging the drum for its technology on Tuesday. The technology converts coal into gas that could be used to fuel power and it argued that this would be achieved without a matching rise in emissions.

Shell said that plants fuelled by gas made from coal using this technology could have 9% lower costs than conventional coal-fired boilers if both types of generation involve carbon capture and storage.

This article is taken from Garry Whites free daily email

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